March 27th, 1870

It was our third winter in Ontario. It had been harsh of course, but not unlike the others.

Perhaps we should have known better. Perhaps if our neighbours had been closer they might have warned us. Advised us to wait a little bit longer.

We had planned and stored and stocked for winter as best we knew. The root vegetables in the cellar were almost gone. The woodpile, stacked so high in October it seemed unimaginable that we could deplete it, yet for so many long nights the fire had burned and burned as we huddled close to stay warm.

The winter had been so long. And after so many months locked up together in the tiny cabin we quietly longed for both a change and rest. Those warm days that blew in with the Ides of March were so seductive. Windows open. Boots off. Small shoots of green starting to appear through stark earth.

Now, too, the days were longer and the darkness didn’t come so quickly. Late in March, it was decided that my husband would make the long trek into town for a few days to replenish our dwindling supplies. I would stay to tend to the animals. I admit to being jealous as we tightened the straps on the old wagon, but I knew he was better suited to the rough roads and harsh conditions of the trip.

He left at dawn and as I watched the wagon disappear down the lane, I felt the wind pick up and wrapped my shall tighter around my shoulders. By early afternoon the clouds had rolled in hard and the skies turned sullen and heavy with snow. By sunset, snow had covered the ground and was rising around me. I tended to the animals early and stoked up the fire. The sound of the shrieking wind kept me awake and listening throughout the night. The beams of the cabin creaked and moaned and drafts blew across the floor. And still it snowed.

By morning, I had to fight to get to the animals. I chopped the ice on top of the water for the cows and chipped away at the frozen feed for the chickens. It was harsh, unforgiving work but that had been our story since coming here. Warming my fingers with my breath, I gathered a few long ropes and tied them together to make one long strip. I fastened one end to the barn door and carried it with me as I fought my way back through the storm, almost missing the farmhouse entirely. Exhausted, I tied the other end of the rope to a post on the back porch.

Still the snow came down.

It was almost two weeks later when I heard from neighbours what had happened. They found him on the road less than 4 miles from town, where the horse had gone down. Nobody had seen a storm like that in 50 years. Nearly 16 inches fell in that single day, March 27th, 1870.

Northern Quebec, Summer 1970

I found a single photograph last week. It is from a not very happy time in my life. It was the summer of 1970 and we had just moved to Montreal. A long, hot summer with no friends. We were living in a very nice condominium and looking for a house.

The photo instantly brought back one of those rare moments – especially rare when you are a teenager – when elements align in your favour in ways that you never expected.

I’ll remind you first of the opposite, far more common teenage occurrence. My husband at 14 was psyched when he found out he was getting his cast off Friday afternoon before the big pool party, and getting his braces put on the next day. Turns out he had the days reversed, ended up going to the pool party with an old cast and brand new braces! Have fun, just don’t swim, eat, drink or talk.

This was not a thing like that. This was the good kind of thing. The fun kind. The kind that is exquisite in the remembering.

My Mom, Dad and I had been invited for the weekend to a cottage on a small, pristine lake. My parents always loved a car trip. It was a beautiful drive out of the city on a hot weekend. The man who invited us worked for my Dad. They had four kids; boys 16 and 14 and girls 10 and 8. I had just turned 12 so fit right in the middle.

They welcomed us and the Mother showed me to my room – set up specially with the two little girls.  They all thought it was absolutely adorable that their 10 year old daughter was taller than me. And mentioned it more than once. 

She had activities lined up for me and the girls – fun stuff but, sadly, things I had long outgrown. Even though I was very small,  I was a pretty mature, sarcastic and confident 12 year old. Rather than being the fun distraction for her little girls that all had anticipated, I immediately aligned with the teenage boys. They were great guys and we were laughing and kidding around within minutes.  Soon I was swimming across the small lake with just the two  boys – my Dad following in canoe – the little girls deemed too young to participate.

After dinner on the Saturday night,  the boys had plans to join some friends at a cottage down the road.  It was decided that I would join the eldest son, his girlfriend, and the younger son and drive to this gathering.  

As I was getting dressed, the father took the two boys outside the cabin and had a little talk with them.  I could hear every word.

He explained to them that my Dad was his boss.  His employer.  At his job which paid for this cottage, and their house, and their dogs, and everything else that mattered to them.   He told them that they were completely responsible not only for my safety, but for my happiness, comfort and enjoyment.  They were to ensure that I had a good time – but not too good a time you follow?

I mean he really spelled it out for them with specifics like –   Make sure she has fun.  Doesn’t get touched. Don’t come home drunk. Pay attention to her all night – do what she wants – come home when she is tired or bored.

Fuck.  Okay.  Could we maybe have that printed up on little cards or something to use again?

Thinking about it now, it seems bizarre that my parents let me go.  I got in the car with teenagers who were basically strangers, yet I had the same confident expectation I have getting into a cab in NYC – nothing can go wrong.  (Of course, that is an absolutely false confidence which luckily I have never had to see shattered, either that night in Quebec or any time NYC.)

Honestly, I remember very little of the actual night. Perhaps it was horribly awkward for them and they were just humouring me throughout.  I don’t think so.  But it doesn’t matter.  I got to experience a night that was quite magical, not just due to the circumstances but to my power to control them.  It was nice to learn early how good that felt.

The Grandmother I Never Knew.

My father’s mother died young, long before I was born.

I have very few photos of her.

Ella had been on the outs with her family for decades. A slightly wild and brazen girl, she bolted for New York State.  At a tender age, she sang in jazz clubs in Albany, Buffalo and Rochester.  She married an American, and soon after, he ran off and left her.  My father was just 4.  

Her family never forgave her.  For any of it.

Divorce was quite a different matter in 1931.  She took my father, moved back in with her strict Scot parents and worked every day in their grocery store.  The shame that surrounded her and my father was thick and never quite dissipated.

Much later on, she remarried and her parents would never accept her new husband as he was a drinker and alcohol was completely abhorrent to them.

Aside from a few photos, the only tangible thing I have to know her by is a pile of letters that she wrote to my parents when they were newly married.  Not a single one contains a date, other than Monday or Thursday.  I can put them in chronological order only by the failing of her handwriting as she was being overtaken by the cancer that would soon kill her.

My father was just starting out in his career, and stayed in Toronto, but my mother gave up her good job at the Toronto Dominion Bank and moved to Gananoque to care, in her final days, for a mother in law that she barely knew.

This act meant a great deal to my father who adored his mother and was very protective of her.  My mother told me she appreciated having the brief but intense time with this woman and all that they were able to share.  As a hospice volunteer, I know how close, and real, these end times can be when all the small stuff fades away.

Neither of my parents talked much about the undercurrents of strife or resentments in the family.  Only in re-reading these letters do I finally see hints of the drama that I know my grandmother  unleashed.  “Is your mother still mad at me?” she asks my mom saucily in one.  I am curious but of course will never know what might have occurred between my two grandmothers to cause such discord.

People always said my sister was very much like my Grandma Ella.  Strident, dramatic, perhaps overly self-interested.  Is she like her still?  I’m not sure.  I don’t see her anymore. 

These are the days of our lives…

I have had this strange feeling for months and while I couldn’t identify it,  it felt very familiar. I just couldn’t place where I had experienced it before. Now I remember.

Many years ago, my youngest was too young to be Scuba certified and desperately wanted to dive.  We took an introductory course from an excellent dive school in the Bahamas that would allow her the chance. I happily took the course with her.  Not surprisingly, we both did very well on the instruction part and mastered the equipment section easily.

Then it was time for the dive.  Simple.  20 minutes, 20 feet, perfect conditions. Now because Kat was by far the youngest in the group,  the Dive Master took her under his wing.  That turned out to be a very good thing.  Because the moment we were in the water,  I was completely overwhelmed.

There was absolutely nothing untoward going on and it was a complete shock.  I am a very strong swimmer, and super comfortable in the water.  My training was satisfactory, and my equipment was functioning perfectly.  However, I was beyond terrified.  I felt like the buoyancy compensator was crushing my chest and I couldn’t breathe.

I knew I would be fine.  I wasn’t going to make a fuss and alert anyone.  As long as a I concentrated very hard on breathing,  with a shallow pant that I tried constantly to slow, and as long as I didn’t let the nausea that was swirling around me take hold, I could last out the entire time.  This was an act of will.

Fighting panic for the next 20 minutes, I didn’t move more than 2 feet from the anchor line of the dive boat.  When Kat or the another diver would approach,  I would cheerfully make the “OK” sign and then pretend to be very interested in the the barnacles on the anchor, or the way the anchor line refracted the light.  I am a good actor.

All I did was hang on to the line and watch Kat.  She, of course, was killing it.  Able to move in every direction gracefully and completely confident I watched her and prayed that she wouldn’t develop any issue that  required my assistance.  I was freaked out knowing that, for the first time, I had real  doubts about my ability to properly take care of one of my kids.

That is how I am feeling now – today.  Most days.  There is nothing wrong.  My family is safe. I am warm and well fed.  When I  turn on the tap, clean water comes out.  When I call the fire department, they not only come fast, they come for free.  I am unbelievably lucky – starting with being born here in Canada. I just can’t help anyone in the ways that I always have.

My husband said a while ago that he was surprised to discover that one could feel both gratitude and anxiety at the same time.  Now we are the poster children for it. As we approach the one year anniversary of this pandemic and the resulting lock-downs, I send a blanket apology to all of those people that I love and care about.  I see you.  I wish you well.  I hurts my heart that I cannot do more to be there for you. Please keep breathing.

Timing is Everything in Music

Last Sunday, after a lovely ladies weekend, I met my friend Tricia at an Open Mike event to sing together. Now, we have performed together before, but only once this year, and of course had not rehearsed anything. We got very lucky.

It reminded me a time in the late 1970’s when I came home one evening and my sister introduced me to her new friend Fred Mandel. He said “Your sister tells me you play the piano – why don’t you play something?” Now my sister was totally setting me up (as usual). My piano skills at the time were BOTH parts of Heart & Soul. “No” I said to the very young looking guest “You first.”

Well I didn’t know it, but at that time, Fred Mandel was playing with Domenic Troiano and was about to tour for four years with Alice Cooper. Oh yeah, he also went on to play live and record with Queen, Supertramp, Pink Floyd and little gigs like LIVE AID with Sir Elton John. No biggie.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 9.59.16 AM

Fred sat at my parent’s little apartment size piano and played the absolute crap out of it. Amazeballs. After about an hour of stunning rock and roll, my Mom came out to say goodnight and thank him for playing. He made as if to stop, and she beseeched him to continue, (“I didn’t even know that piano could SOUND like that “) He instantly switched to Cole Porter and gentle swing for the rest of the evening. I’m glad he went first.

It was a less dramatic event on Sunday. Tricia and I got up and sang a song. They liked us and asked us to sing another which we did. They wanted more and we said no and that is always the best way. Then the next group got up. Four black guys – they sounded like 3-1/2 guys from Santana. You know when a band kicks in full throttle, completely in sync, from the very first note? It was like that. I bet they rehearsed.

My first fan letter.

In November, 1978 my sister called and invited me to go to a concert with her. This was quite remarkable as she didn’t like me very much. She said it was someone I “had to see”. As an older sister, she felt responsible for my musical education. I had never heard of him. It was Bruce Springsteen.

Well this was in the Concert Bowl at Maple Leaf Gardens – Bruce left the stage, came through the floor crowd and sang several times right beside our seats in the stands. It was a stunning,  4+ hour show and I left sweaty and completely satisfied. That was more than 37 years ago and I have since seen Bruce many times. Maybe 17? I stopped counting. Rochester in 1978. Chicago in 1999.

 

Bruce

Everyone knows that on a scale of 1 – 10 a Springsteen show is a clear 17. Every one a remarkable experience.  And each is different. When I took my husband to see Bruce at the CNE in the late 80’s, the sky was threatening rain. Bruce opened up with “Who’ll Stop The Rain”. It worked.

When my sons were about 7 and 9 I took them to see Bruce. This was the 90’s and I really wanted them to see what it was like when a human being wrote every word, and every note, and then had other humans all play it together. It’s magic and at that time it was very rare.  It still is.

It was different then, when you couldn’t share things with the ease that you can today.  I remember driving down Avenue Road quite late one evening in 1980, and Q107 had a sneak pre-release preview of one song from Bruce’s new album “The River”.  There were no cell phones – I couldn’t share the moment with anyone.  They played “Drive All Night” and I was so overcome I pulled over to the side of the road.  Bruce is playing the entire album on Tuesday.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to take it when he sings that song.

I love  Bruce Springsteen.  He has never asked me for anything in all these years except to pay attention politically and to bring food for my local food bank to every show.  Like thousands of others, I submitted a response to the “3 Words about Bruce Springsteen” for the remarkable documentary SPRINGSTEEN AND I. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVQUeCi9V0s )  I don’t remember what my three words were – I am guessing one was “Authentic”.  Whatever.  I end up saying the same three words that most of the fans say, and that I still say today:

THANK YOU BRUCE!

 

 

 

The Wake Up Call

The 100 Word Challenge this week is “The alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. as usual”

100wcgu-71

The Wake Up Call

I didn’t start to worry until well after midnight. No calls – “I didn’t want to wake you”- would be the excuse. Tomorrow the kids would start school and everything would be back to normal. Surely many couples have a hard time through the summer – far too much time spent together.

Later, tired of pacing, of looking out the window with every car light that passed, I fell asleep.

The alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. as usual. I felt the empty side of the bed and realized that, for me, the alarm should have gone off long ago.

100 Word Challenge Week #166: “checking in proved to be”

100wcgu-71   The prompt this week”  “checking in proved to be”.  Here goes:

The WELCOME

When their son graduated from high school, he was allowed to choose any destination worldwide for a family vacation.  Jared chose Dubai and his mother made extensive travel plans for their adventure.

After a long and exhausting flight, they arrived at their hotel and Janice approached the front desk.  “Good morning,  we’re the Lee family, checking in.”

The desk clerk, looked Janice up and down, turned to her husband and asked; “Do you allow your woman speak for you?”.  Hmmm.  Checking in proved to be only the first indicator of what would certainly be an enlightening experience for them all.

The Gift

Dear Lindy~ I thought of your Mom yesterday. A song came on the radio.

You know that many years ago, she was a business mentor to me. I was in my early 20’s and she was the senior financial person in the agency where I worked. But more than that, she was the senior woman in the organization. She had clout. She made things happen.

I was lucky that she liked me. She was a huge help to me. We went together one evening to an Agency party on the Centre Island. Walking from the Ferry I started to hum a Springsteen song. That was the first time your Mom heard me sing. She made me start at the beginning. And sing louder. I was really embarrassed and didn’t want to. She was a hard person to say “no” too. I bet you’ve heard that before! Sort of a fist in a velvet glove. I sang. It didn’t sound half bad.

She invited me to  come to your house in the Beach. Your Dad would play the guitar and I would sing. The song that I heard on the radio yesterday that reminded me of her was “Daniel” by Elton John. That was the first song that I ever sang with him playing the guitar. It was scary and thrilling. microphone_on_stage_a3d71 After that, she would make me sing all the time. Even after we had both moved on to other jobs, she would call me from work and get me to sing to her. More than once, it was on the speaker phone and she had others there. She loved opera and there was a part of an opera that I had stuck in my head. I called her and sang it to her (in the middle of a meeting!) and she was able to identify it. So cool.

It was many years later that I got a call from Inez that your Mom was sick. Real sick. She was in Sunnybrook and had asked for me to come down and sing some Springsteen to her. Inez and I met up the next day and we visited your Mom. By then, she was hardly conscious. I sat by her bed and sang. I came back down 3 or 4 more times to sing to her. Who knows if she was able to hear me by then. Maybe if she couldn’t hear the words she could feel the feelings behind them. At first I was so shy to sing, but each time I became braver. The nurses would step in, and people visiting, to listen and I wouldn’t stop.

The last time I came down, I was walking down the hall towards her room and your Dad was being wheeled by on a stretcher. He was screaming. As he passed me, he grabbed my hand and screamed at me; ‘Leslie! Stay with Bonnie. Please! Stay with Bonnie!”. He was panic struck. I said I would, and walked into your Mom’s room. Your Aunt Sue was with your Mom and it took me a moment to realize that she was gone.

After I said goodbye to her, I went and found your Dad downstairs where they were trying to calm him down. No matter how clear it had been that she wasn’t going to make it, the shock of her actual death was almost too much for him to bear. He loved her so.

Your Grandmother asked me to sing at the funeral. I spent hours learning the song that they had chosen – “How Great Thou Art”. The day before the funeral, I woke up with almost total laryngitis. I was so disappointed and felt like I was letting her down. When I called your Grandmother and croaked out that I couldn’t talk (much less sing) she asked if there was anything that she could do to help me. This, on the weekend that she was burying her daughter. Such kindness.

My voice came back after several days and I began to sing more often. I had sung as a child, in a school choir that actually made a Christmas album, and with the women in my family around the piano. We could all sing. We sang in the car for hours on long road trips. Somehow, when I got to high school my voice was silenced. It wasn’t that I was shy – on the contrary I was loud and a smart ass. Yet the idea of singing in front of people, either in the choir, in the musicals or even in casual settings seemed impossible. Years later, your Mom unlocked that part of me.

Now I sing every day. I take music lessons with a wonderful teacher to learn different harmonies and play a new instrument. I have sung at many weddings, and at many funerals. My own choir has done more than 100 shows at old folks homes, and I walk the halls of the hospital with a couple of other singers whenever we can. IMG_4526 My husband, son and daughter play the guitar and we all sing, as a family and with friends who come over with their guitars or to play the piano. It is truly one of the real joys in my life and your Mom gave me that.

What Faithful Knew

On paper, it probably didn’t look like a good idea. A home and family in a bit of an uproar, lots going on. He was the the fourth of five and the youngest son. He was animal crazy just like me and we have been friends for 50 years. My parents used to take us out sometimes on a Sunday, we would drive out to the country to go and see horses. For his birthday, Dan’s oldest brother and sister got him a dog. They went to the pound and picked out a young dog. Now, according to dog lore, they did everything wrong. This dog was cowering in the corner. He didn’t respond when they called him over. But whether it was something in his eyes, or they were just dead fluke lucky, he was the right dog. When Dan met this dog that was it. He named him Faithful. While he was a very friendly dog who loved pretty much everybody, his very soul burned out his eyes when he looked at Dan. You see, Faithful knew. Faithful and Dan Now Dan was a smart kid and a natural with the dog. He trained this pup up to the point where he could take him anywhere. The tradeoff for that of course is the same as it is for children – they get to go more places and people are always glad to see them. My parents didn’t even like dogs and they loved Faithful. Everyone did. He responded to hand motions, and sang on cue – he was perfect company. Many, many years later my daughter Katt did an Independent Study Project on the local SPCA and began working on my husband in earnest to adopt a rescue dog. She was pretty determined and as my husband is powerless against her he agreed. We already had two grown dogs so determined that a younger dog would be a better fit. Talk about a pig in a poke. She picked this dog out via a thumbnail sketch from a Rescue site on the internet. He was was brought to Toronto in the back of a van with a dozen other rescue dogs from Alma in northern Quebec – where he had been tossed in a cardboard box with 3 brothers outside an animal shelter in the dead of winter. When he arrived, it was clear he was older than we had expected. He was coloured like a German Shepherd but his personality was all Lab. He was all about the food and the love. And he loved Katt. She was it for him – though he loves us all when she isn’t around. She named him Chase. He is exactly like the dog in the movie “Up” who can speak. “Squirrel!” He passed his obedience school lessons on the first night. He gets to go canoeing in Algonquin Park and attend classes with her at University. IMG_2679 Chase reminded me of Faithful right away. It wasn’t just his calm demeanor, or his intelligence. It’s that – somehow – he knows what Faithful knew. He knows that things could have been so much worse for him. That there was a life of abuse or neglect that could have been his. That it was just a toss of the dice that he ended up here – with owners that adore him in his forever home and will care for him for the rest of his life.